The San Francisco 49ers (6-2) are entering their bye week with the third best record in the NFL, at the top of the NFC West division and apparently poised to make another run at the Super Bowl. Here is how they have performed.
The well-known Game Manager, Alex Smith is having his best season as a professional in his eighth year. His numbers are higher than The League average in the three major categories (Yds, TDs, QBR). Though Smith matched last year’s interception total in week seven and his passing yards per game is below the total from a couple years ago, he will likely eclipse most, if not all, of his top seasonal numbers. Smith has a quarterback rating of 102.9, 69.4 completion percentage, 1659 passing yards, 12 TDs and five interceptions.
Quarterback rating, completion percentage, yards per attempt and touchdowns should all be higher than years past. Just as important, is quarterback development. Not only has Smith elevated his level of play over the last year-and-a-half, but Colin Kaepernick has also made improvements showing positive play sparsely with the “Wild Kaep”. Smith is not prolific, yet he is getting the job done and can only be considered a primary part in effecting a loss one time this season. Both 49ers quarterbacks have also rushed for more than 100 yards this season. Grade: B+
San Francisco leads the National Football League in rushing yards (1349), average yards per rush (5.6) and yards per game (168.6). They are also sixth in rushing touchdowns and third in first downs by rush. Hence, the Niners have the best running game in football headed by Frank Gore, one of the top backs in The League, with 656 yards for the year. Amongst running backs with 100 or more rushes, Gore also leads The League in average yards a rush (5.5).
Kendall Hunter has been an effective backup averaging 5.0 yards each time he runs the ball. He has rushed for 301 yards thus far. Bruce Miller is one of the better blocking fullbacks this season, leading the way for Gore and Hunter. One only wonders what to expect when former Giant, Brandon Jacobs gets his first run as a Niner. Undoubtedly, expect more of the same as Coach Harbaugh continues to depend primarily on the run to win games and take the will of their opponents. Grade: A+
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends:
In 2011, tight ends were not an issue to address. Pro Bowler, Vernon Davis was in the top-10 in receptions, yards and touchdowns. This year is much of the same with Davis providing the same in those categories. Nevertheless, Davis does this while receiving primary attention from opposing defenses every game. With a healthy Delanie Walker, San Francisco has one of the best tight end combinations in football. Despite Michael Crabtree’s career year last year, one of the team’s deficits was at the wide receiver position.
In 2011, a little more than half of the team’s receptions were by wide receivers. Those numbers worsened during the playoffs when passes thrown by Alex Smith was caught by a wide receiver 22% of the time. This stat was more apparent during the Niners’ NFC Championship loss to the Giants when Smith could not find an open receiver to save his life. After bringing in Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, the play is much better at wide-out. This year, the wide-receivers are catching more than 60% of the passes.
Furthermore, the receivers and tight ends caught 150 passes for first down last year. In eight games, they have caught 87. Not only is this unit better than last year’s, but they compare better than average compared to the rest of the NFL. Critics may try to judge this group totally by the numbers. That cannot be done. In a rushing-oriented offense, wide receivers will not be given the opportunity for huge numbers, especially for a winning team with a great defense where shootouts have not taken place. Grade: B
Providing holes for runners, protecting the quarterback and imposing a ferocious will between the lines are what is expected of an offensive line. Joe Staley (Pro Bowl), Mike Iupati, Jonathan Goodwin, Alex Boone, Anthony Davis – with backups Joe Looney, Daniel Kilgore and Leonard Davis – have made it their duty to pound defenses with the running game. You cannot lead The League in rushing without a strong and abusive offensive line. The Niners have consistently been a threat with the run.
Their rushing numbers have gone 186, 82, 89, 245, 311, 80, 175 and 113. On the other hand, protecting Alex Smith has been a struggle. Smith was sacked 44 times last year; most in the NFL. At the halfway point this year, Smith has been sacked 22 times. Clearly, Smith is often indecisive during great coverage and holds the ball too long; but, he can be protected a much better. Grade: B
First, the 49ers defense, with their 3-4 alignment, can be considered the best in football. They have allowed the fewest points in football (12.9 avg.) and the fewest yards-per-game (271.4). They are sixth versus the rush and second versus the pass. Unlike last year’s unit, they have not made as many big plays.
Nevertheless, the Niners’ defensive line is a solid group. Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and Justin Smith (Pro Bowl) fill in the gaps inside with the best receiving limited help from blitz packages. Rarely will this group be flattened by opposing linemen, hence the numbers. Smith has one of the best motors in the game. He’s the emotional leader of the unit with 35 total tackles. Grade: B
This group is the core of the 49ers defense. Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith could be the top unit in The League. They will bring Larry Grant off the bench, who can start for most of the other teams in the NFL. Both Bowman and Willis are in the top-10 in total tackles; the only team that can say so about two linebackers. Aldon Smith is fourth in sacks (7.5). If you have watched this group, no others tackle more surely than this one. Grade: A
This group – Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson – also rank high amongst others in the NFL. Though their interception numbers are lower (4) compared to last year, the group still lays the lumber. They do not allow many big pass plays, sure tacklers and have an intimidation factor that rivals the guys who play in front of them. Their play has been solid the entire season. Grade: B+
As the Niners depend on their defense very often, field position is a sure factor. In those close games, kicking is also. Thanks to David Akers, the Niners are in the top-6 in touchbacks. Ted Ginn Jr. is in the top-5 in punt return average. Andy Lee is in the top-10 in punting average (47.7) and top-5 with punts inside the 20 and 10 (17). The glaring deficit with this group is the five field goals Akers has missed this season. He has been less active, but missing three field goals between 40-49 yards is a crucial statistic. Overall, (and again) compared to last year’s team; there has been fewer big returns. Grade: B -
After a great season last year, critics called for a letdown. Jim Harbaugh coaches against the letdown and undisciplined play. This had led to another winning season (thus far). Harbaugh and the other coaches have performed well in elevating a team to higher heights after a great season. Harbaugh, Greg Roman (offense), Vic Fangio (defense) and Brad Seely (special teams) have put it all together after the off-season additions.
The questions have been made. Why sign Randy Moss? Will he play a part in the offense? Why has he not been a target more often? Does Harbaugh trust Alex Smith? Why not let the ball fly more often with all the weapons? It is easy to hear the critics and find yourself swaying; the Giants games may be a perfect example. Nevertheless, Harbaugh has stuck with his philosophy and may have his team in the right place again for a shot at the Superbowl. Grade: B+
The 49ers have been just as consistent as any other team in the NFL. They can battle with the best due to their defense. They can win games because they typically make fewer mistakes. The only team better is the one who has yet to lose a game (at the time of this writing). (Overall) Grade: A-